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By Steve Kelman

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Cooperation is in the eye of the beholder

I recently read a fascinating study in the scholarly journal "Organization Science" that found similarities and differences between American and Chinese cultures in workgroup settings.

The authors — Joshua Keller of Nanyang Business School in Singapore and Jeffrey Loewenstein of the University of Texas at Austin — set out to study behaviors that people interpret as showing cooperativeness. Broadly, the responses are more similar than different. Situations in which teams were rewarded as groups rather than individuals or where members are willing to give up their lunch breaks for an important group activity, for example, were seen as signs of cooperation to about the same extent in both countries.

Some of the differences fit with common views of differences between U.S. and Chinese cultures. For example, American respondents said openly discussing a team member’s mistake shows more cooperativeness, while the Chinese said the opposite.

But two of the differences were puzzling.

On a question about the willingness to drop one's own activity to help another group member with a different task, Americans said the faster that people do that, the more cooperative they seem. But the Chinese said a situation in which several members of the group help with the other’s task as soon as they're done with some of their own — rather than putting their own tasks aside immediately — showed greater cooperation.

Another difference was even more unusual, at least from an American perspective. Subjects were presented with the following two kinds of groups: "Members try to outperform other members" and "members don't try to perform better or faster than other members." Americans felt the second group displayed greater cooperation. But the Chinese felt that the competitive group displayed more cooperation than the noncompetitive one!

That result is particularly strange because cultural stereotypes might suggest, if anything, the opposite — that Americans would be more willing to accept competition among group members as not damaging the group’s spirit of cooperation.

In this multicultural world, more and more of us are finding ourselves in work situations with people from different cultures, including immigrants to the United States who haven’t been here long enough to absorb the nuances of American culture. We tend to assume that people will interpret behavior the same way we do. We need more studies like this to open people's eyes to when this is so and when it's not.

By the way, I know this blog has Chinese and Taiwanese readers (including perhaps Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants inside the United States). I would be grateful for any reactions to the two differences I mention above. I am particularly intrigued by the second one, which suggests that Chinese workers view people trying to outshine others in their workgroup as an example of cooperation. Is it possible that anything that improves the overall performance of the group reflects favorably on the group as a whole?

I would love to hear thoughts about these differences.

Posted on May 25, 2011 at 7:27 PM


Reader Comments

Tue, May 31, 2011 Steve Kelman

Thanks for the comments, especially from Chinese blog readers! I hope the authors of the study see them. I am actually wondering whether the results are perhaps due to chance. When you test 20 relationships, one of the 20 is likely to show up as "statistically significant" at the .05 level just by chance. So at least the two commenters from China don't believe Chinese are different from Americans in this question.

Tue, May 31, 2011 Jason BJ

As a Chinese, I totally agree with Yangyi. Living in this culture for more than twenty years, I don't think any Chinese will see a person that only cares to "outperform other members" as a cooperative teammate. In fact, I personally doubt that this kind of person will be seen as cooperative in any culture since it obviously is selfish. If there is nothing wrong with the result of this survey, the only reason I would say is that the survey itself only gave two choices: try or try not to outperform others. In this way, I guess many Chinese, especially young people, would see the meaning behind "try not to outperform others" as being too modest or even timid to increase the efficiency of the whole group. Compared to this, trying to outperform others, though sounds aggressive and selfish, may in some way injects positive competition and increase overall efficiency. However, I still don't believe that Chinese culture can accept those who are eager to shine themselves among others.

Thu, May 26, 2011 yangyi

as a Chinese, I don't agree with second assumption made by profs from Nanyang business school etc. I don't think chinese respect aggressive group individual will help for the group's cooperation. There is one excetpion, that is this one is a leader of the group,otherwise people may think he/she is not so cooperative.

Thu, May 26, 2011 DG

Maybe its because in the US the sqeeky wheel get the oil while in china the nail that protrudes up gets pounded down. You didn't say which Chinese cultures.

Wed, May 25, 2011 Eddwin Lau Paris, France

I'm an ABC who has never lived in China and has been outside of the US for 11 years, but it seems to me that in the case of how competitive behaviour is viewed, if one focuses on the individual credit that one gets for doing one's best (perhaps a more American approach), then it may seem selfish, but if one focuses on the final output (or outcome) that the group is trying to achieve, then doing one's best is actually quite selfless because everyone is going all out to complete the task at hand. A kiwi friend of mine who used to work on e-government with me at the OECD once said that "collaboration is an unnatural act between nonconsenting adults", but perhaps it all comes down to how much one can put individual recognition aside in favor of getting the job done.

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